Stranded Abroad in a Foreign Country as International Borders close due to CODVID-19
By: Courtney Dowd-Stanley
Have you ever caught yourself day-dreaming about running away to a deserted island, leaving all of your problems behind, and taking a "break" from reality? I know I'm guilty of having these thoughts more than a time or two in my lifetime. However, never in my wildest dreams (or... nightmares) could I have imagined that this would unfold and seemingly "come true" in the most inconvenient and unforeseen manner imaginable. But when an innocent week-long vacation planned for my 33rd birthday intermixed with what is now deemed as at the CODVID-19 global pandemic, that is exactly what happened. It's now been over a week, and I am still stranded abroad in a foreign country due to the coronavirus outbreak spreading like wildfire across the globe.
About 10 days ago, I pulled up my handy-dandy iPhone app for the flight carrier that I was set to travel with out of the country of Honduras back to the United States. When I went to refresh my status, there was a big red "CANCELLED" notification where just one day prior it had read "on time." No emails, no calls, no correspondence whatsoever. So of course, I followed up with a phone call. After waiting on hold for over 3 hours without any answer, I went to bed and decided to get some sleep. The next morning I tried again and was able to get through to a customer service representative. They informed me that all flights in and out of the country had been cancelled for a minimum of seven days. So I rebooked for seven days later, after first verifying that sea travel (via ferry to the mainland) was also going to be operating. Wonderful news! An extended vacation wasn't the worse news ever. In fact, I took it as God's way of telling me "you need to slow down and enjoy the journey." There was nothing I could do to control it anyways, so I reminded myself that it's important to remember to try and see the light in things even on the darkest of days filled with uncertainty.
I spent the next few days distracting myself from the worries and "what ifs" of being permanently stuck. The media constantly filling my mind with skepticism and the looming feeling of being in a country where I have no access to healthcare and do not speak the official language. Reminding myself constantly that I am thankful to be healthy and not a "high risk" person at the helms of catching the coronavirus. Trail running daily and loading up on my limited amount of vitamins (thankfully I packed enough for two weeks instead of one). Trying to eat healthy, avoid alcohol consumption, and keep my mind and body present with coping through the stress.
Everything got more eerie when Marshall Law went into place and locals/visitors alike were told that they were only allowed into "town" (located a 10 minute boat-ride away) between the hours of 10am and 1pm daily, with only essential businesses in operation. All restaurants shut down. Grocery stores are on a delivery-only basis. People in a frenzie about the local mayor temporarily banning the sale of all alcohol. Thankfully the folks I'm staying with have a boat, otherwise I'd be stranded on a legitimately deserted island with zero ability to access food or supplies. All of this is very scary, though now that it's been over a week it's becoming more common and I'm adjusting to the change. The side of the island I'm on has MAYBE ten people remaining. I believe that I'm one of only three tourists and the others are either permanent or semi-permanent residents residing primarily in the United States or Canada. It's as if I have the whole place to myself. A crazy-beautiful experience that I someday hope to look back on and remember fondly with my grandkids around the campfire.
With currently zero cases of coronavirus here, it's probably the safest and cleanest place I could be. Talk about perspective. So long as I stay healthy and virus-free, this makes being stranded in a foreign country not so bad after all. There is a silver lining in everything and that is what I keep telling myself. So I try to get up early and soak in those amazing 5:45am sunrises that we won't see in Alaska for at least a couple more months. The sunsets are just as remarkable. The seclusion, the peace, the absolute paradise. I know I dreamt of this whole "being stranded on a deserted island" thing plenty of times, and every day here is proof that the lord works in mysterious ways.
It's easy to look at these pictures of the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea and think "oh wow, must be nice." Truthfully, it is nice. It's beyond stunning. The temperature is perfection, the scenery is breathtaking, and the people I'm so fortunate to stay with are so kind and unbelievably hospitable. If it wasn't for desperately needing to return home to do things like... tend to my priorities, take care of family, and pay my bills, I could very well stay here forever. In a pristinely perfect environment, it's hard not to feel guilty about being unnerved and unsettled inside.
The media is so relentless. The White House says, "if you're traveling abroad you need to find a way home or you might be stuck for a very extended period of time." So here we are roughly 10 days in, and I once again go to check my iPhone app for the status of my upcoming flight. Again, without an email or phone call notification, the airline displays a big red "CANCELLED" icon. So, I call again. This time they tell me, "we do not have any idea when the airport will reopen - we are not re-booking any flights until the end of April." Say, what?! So now I'm looking at being stuck here for over a month? I love paradise but I can't afford to be stuck here for that long. So I follow up with the ferry company departing out of the island I'm on, and they say "all ferries cancelled until further notice." Not even a mere idea as to "if" they will reopen let alone a "when." Terrifying. When the stress and the fear gets to be too much to focus, I grab a bucket, throw on some gloves (lent to me by Mrs. Marsha) and walk the remote, picturesque shores alongside the Caribbean Sea picking up trash that has washed up over the years. Not because anyone will notice, but because it's therapeutic to spend energy loving on nature instead of dwelling on things that are out of my control.
Sometimes the two local island dogs will even join me on my adventures outside; running or beach combing or sneaking up behind me to surprise me with their cuteness. Bella is the female with one ear. Rumor has it that a crab bit it off when she was just a pup. I am unsure of the male dogs' name so I just call him "boyfriend" since they are obviously two companions in love. One night they sat with me for two hours on the beach while I collected trash and found lots of seashells and treasures along the way. It was the best distraction and a night filled with simple, pure joy that not even the coronavirus pandemic can ruin.
With the advice of a very good friend, I registered with the U.S. Embassy and emailed + called my local senators for their help in advocating my safe return home to the United States. Back home, I'm lucky enough to have an amazing Dad that also spent countless hours trying to get ahold of state officials to help gather information as to what the U.S. is doing to help stranded Americans such as myself stuck in foreign countries with no foreseeable explanation or plan as to when they will be rescued. I'm able to do some work from "home" and can't be more grateful for actual well-working WiFi access while I'm here (talk about spoiled). The Americans that are stranded in major cities abroad and quarantined to their hotel rooms have it a thousand times worse that I do. I am very aware of that and don't take my situation for granted no matter how unorthodox or unplanned it may be. Today I received notice today that the U.S. will start sending planes in hopefully by this weekend. So long as I can coordinate a way off this island via private plane or private water taxi to a major airport, I am hopeful that I can return home sooner than the end of April.
Although nothing is guaranteed and Governor Dunleavy is requiring that all returning residents to Alaska undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine upon their arrival home, I am thankful for having some hope. It's scary to think that at a minimum, I'll be without work for a month. If not longer. Having a side-business makes it a little easier to digest, but tourism as a whole is going to be vastly effected by this pandemic and that makes for a very daunting year ahead. But I know tons of Alaskans and people across the globe are going through this chaos with me. We are all in it together. We will weather the storm and someday things will get back to normal. At the end of the day, I'll never stop travelling but Alaska will always be HOME. I've learned to love the 49th state now more than ever after having my access stripped away at the drop of a dime. Alaskans are strong, resourceful, resilient people. To be included in that group is truly a privilege that gives me an overwhelming amount of strength. I'll pass my final days here soaking in the million-dollar views while having coffee with the hummingbirds in the tropical heat. But I only have one jar of Alaskan sunscreen left (aka SPF 70) so hopefully I make it out before I get much more sunburnt. ;-)
Have you been effected personally by the Coronavirus global pandemic? How are you weathering the storm?